The negative correlation between obesity and indebtedness

By Felix Salmon
October 2, 2011
Michael Lewis says something very odd in his big piece on California and the phenomenon of overconsumption:

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Michael Lewis says something very odd in his big piece on California and the phenomenon of overconsumption:

The succession of financial bubbles, and the amassing of personal and public debt, Whybrow views as simply an expression of the lizard-brained way of life. A color-coded map of American personal indebtedness could be laid on top of the Centers for Disease Control’s color-coded map that illustrates the fantastic rise in rates of obesity across the United States since 1985 without disturbing the general pattern.

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Here is the map in question; if you go to the site and see it animated over time, it is indeed quite scary. But it doesn’t look remotely like a map of American personal indebtedness.

Indeed, if you download the Fed’s list of total debt balance per capita, by state, it looks nothing like this map at all. The Fed only lists the ten biggest states, and the overall average, which is is a per capita indebtedness of $47,260.

At the bottom of the personal-indebtedness league table are Texas ($34,640 of debt, 31% obesity) and Ohio ($34,090 of debt, 29.2% obesity).

Meanwhile, the states at the top of the personal-indebtedness league table are California ($73,300 of debt, 24% obesity), New Jersey ($60,560 of debt, 23.8% obesity), and Nevada ($60,190 of debt, 22.4% obesity).

In fact, indebtedness and obesity have a strong negative correlation. If I plug the obesity rates for the ten largest states into an online correlation calculator, I get an amazing -0.843 correlation between obesity rates and personal indebtedness. What Lewis wrote is so false that the opposite of it is actually true.

Now there are strong connections between debt and obesity. For one thing, both have been increasing steadily over time. And a German study last year showed that over-indebted Germans were more than twice as likely to be obese as their financially-successful counterparts. But here in the US, Texas, with its responsible lenders and no housing bubble, is much fatter than places like California and Nevada, which went on bubble-fueled binges of borrowing and irresponsible lending.

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